by Lauryn Madere & Shaun Breaux
A community is a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. It’s where people grow up, where they learn who they are. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors and even classmates are some of the people who make communities what they are. They are, in simpler terms, home.
And in South Louisiana, that sense of community has come from the way the Acadians have historically raised their children, says Paul Leslie, professor of history at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.
“Most of the Acadians that leave here are very successful because they love people,” he says. “They have great people skills, and that’s one of the things that comes out of a community. The community raises the kids.”
But communities don’t always last. Sometimes they disappear. Sometimes they are ripped away. All across South Louisiana’s bayou region, people have been forced to leave their homes because of natural disasters or other environmental concerns.
In order to preserve the history, culture and traditions of these lost communities, Garde Voir Ci’s spring 2020 issue, will kick off a series capturing the stories of the people that lived in these distinct places in South Louisiana that otherwise would be lost. Places like Grand Bayou, Isle de Jean Charles, Cheniere Caminada, Last Island and the Houma Nation.
“That’s the last thing an Acadian wants to do is move,” Leslie says. “You drive along the bayou and you see all these French named lanes and you wonder why? Why because their family originated here.”
Only the memories of those left and the documents of those no longer alive sustain Grand Bayou’s story. And Grand Bayou’s stories are the stories of its people. The community it created. And within them, Grand Bayou will always exist.
“I want to talk about this because Grand Bayou was so precious to me” says Jason Blanchard, a former resident of Grand Bayou.
Echoing the hollowness left behind in Grand Bayou, a set of five, handwritten pages documents the history of the Rousseau family, one of the main families who settled the community. Hazel Aucoin, daughter of Marcelin and Adele Rousseau one of the original families in Grand Bayou, wrote the history that started with Gustave Joseph de LaBarre founding Grand Bayou in 1900 when it was just a sawmill, cotton gin, broom factory, moss gin, country store, dance hall and a barbershop. Located in Assumption Parish, Grand Bayou existed between much larger communities with large Cajun families that lived along both sides of the bayou.
“I don’t think Cajun has anything to do with family genetics, it’s more of an environment that you’re raised in,” Leslie says.
Aucoin’s notes detail the bayou as the center of the community in the town’s one mile of glory. Its people used the bayou as the main source of transportation, living off the land and attending Sunday afternoon gatherings. Children learned to swim in the bayou during the day, and people would come by horseback or boat to attend big dances every Saturday night. Work mostly took place in the swamp: cutting down trees, pulling logs by pull boats and dredging canals.
“It was a friendly community, safe community. We had just everything we really wanted there,” says Jerry Rousseau, who lived in Grand Bayou for 19 years. “We had a store, a schoolhouse.”
Just like everything else, the town progressed with time. The country store thrived, restaurants opened, buses ran and natural gas, electricity and parish water developed. Yet the community was in an area that, when rains further north swelled the rivers like the Atchafalaya, the water would back up Grand Bayou and flood the community. Those waters were known as “high water.” And while high water was a concern, the discovery of two other natural resources — salt domes and natural gas — were what eventually drove the people of Grand Bayou from their home.
At first, the incorporation of the oil companies created jobs and prosperity. But now, companies like Texas Brine, Dow Chemical and Underground Storage Facility are all that remains of a once thriving community.
“When I grew up, it was just a great place to be safe as can be,” Rousseau said. “It’s sickening to pass through it and see what’s happening.”
As what little remains disappears, there is a limit to what stories those notes recorded by hand long ago can recreate. But the memories and voices of those who lived in the community still speak — through words, pictures, memories.
Garde Voir Ci will tell that story. The story of a community whose only remaining marker, the historical plaque that lies fading on the ground, reminds us of what home really is:
“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave but not our hearts.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.